Anti-Ballistic-Missile Treaty of 1972

views updated May 29 2018


The Anti-Ballistic-Missile Treaty of 1972 (ABM Treaty) limited the number of defensive antiballistic missile (ABM) systems that the United States and the former Soviet Union could use in preparation for nuclear war (23 UST 3435: TIAS 7503; 944 UNTS 13, U.S. department of state, Treaties in Force, 1993). Restrictions on ballistic missile defenses (BMDs), military warning systems designed to alert and protect a nation, composed the bulk of the treaty's articles. The treaty limited each country's supply of remote-controlled, long-range nuclear rockets, or intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian Federation continued to adhere to the agreement. In 2001, however, the United States announced that it would no longer abide by the pact.

On May 26, 1972, at the U.S.-Soviet summit in Moscow, President richard m. nixon of the United States and President Leonid Brezhnev of the Soviet Union signed, in conjunction with the strategic arms limitation talks of 1969–72 (SALT I), the ABM Treaty. The treaty limited each party to two ABM sites, with no more than one hundred ABM launchers and interceptors at each site. One of these sites could protect an ICBM silo deployment area, and the second could protect the national capital. The treaty prohibited the development, testing, or deployment of sea-based, air-based, space-based, or mobile land-based ABM systems. Furthermore, it excluded the transfer or deployment of ABM systems to or in other nations. The 15 articles of the treaty were of unlimited duration and would come up for renewal every five years.

The principles of the treaty explicitly reflected the policy of mutual assured destruction (MAD)—the belief that the best way to control nuclear arms is to allow both sides enough power to ensure the destruction of both nations in the event of war. As stated in Article I of the treaty, each side agreed "not to deploy ABM systems for a defense of the territory of its country and not to provide a base for such a defense, and not to deploy ABM systems for defense of an individual region" (Durch 1988). Article II defines an ABM system as "a system to counter strategic ballistic missiles or their elements in flight trajectory, currently consisting of ABM interceptor missiles … ABM launchers [and] … ABM radars." Article III reiterates the ban on ABM deployment, excepting, for each side, one deployment area around the national capital and one around an ICBM launcher deployment area. This provision was later

reduced, in 1974, to just one deployment area for each country, allowing "no more than 100 ABM interceptor missiles at launch sites." Articles IV to XV outline provisions for, among other issues, nuclear testing, radar deployment, amendments to the treaty, and the terms of treaty withdrawal.

After the ABM Treaty was ratified by the U.S. Congress, legislators refused to authorize funds for building an ABM site outside Washington, D.C. In early 1975, the United States deployed its single permitted system near the Minuteman Fields at Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota. Within a year, however, the system was deactivated by Congress on the ground that it was not very cost-effective. The Soviets, meanwhile, used their ABM deployments to protect Moscow.

Despite attempts to follow the principles of SALT I, continued limitations on strategic arms fell apart with the SALT II Treaty of 1979. The U.S. Congress refused to ratify the treaty, which had been signed by Presidents jimmy carter and Leonid Brezhnev. SALT II went on to draw heavy fire in the 1980s from the newly empowered Reagan administration. Whereas the Soviets generally adhered to a strict interpretation of the ABM Treaty, President ronald reagan advocated "peace through strength" and pushed for new weapons programs and policies. Reagan reinterpreted the treaty liberally, putting it to its most serious test. His proposal to render nuclear ballistic missiles ineffective and obsolete, with the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a space-based BMD system popularly known as Star Wars, caused great debate at home and considerable alarm in the Soviet Union.

Like Reagan, opponents of the ABM Treaty believed that its limits were based on one-way accommodation, that is, allowing the Soviets to retain their numerical superiority, as seen in SALT II. The Soviets had previously established numerical superiority in ICBM deployment, and the ABM Treaty supposedly held back the development of further U.S. weapons technology. Especially troublesome to some was the Soviet's Krasnoyarsk radar system in western Siberia. According to Article VI of the ABM Treaty, an early warning radar with this orientation should have been located on the Pacific coast or in the outer Arctic reaches of Siberia. Many believed that Moscow was cheating on its end of the deal, hence the treaty should go.

In the 1980s, tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union flared. In October 1985, the Reagan administration announced a new interpretation of the ABM Treaty, under which the development and testing of "exotic" ABM systems (those not spelled out in the treaty itself, e.g., Star Wars) would have no limit. In 1986, with the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) talks in full swing, the United States and the Soviet Union treated the ABM Treaty as a central bargaining chip. Moscow looked to maintain the treaty for at least another decade, with tight constraints on space testing. Washington, meanwhile, looked to abide by the treaty for at most another decade and expected lessened constraints on the space testing of exotic technologies.

The ensuing events of the late 1980s and early 1990s caught everyone by surprise. Although the United States's interest in the SDI continued into the george h. w. bush administration years, and persisted through the eventual breakup of the Soviet Union, both the United States and the Soviet Union showed interest in pursuing at least the spirit of the ABM Treaty. True arms reductions talks developed with the Soviet demise. In 1991, Soviet nuclear forces were split up between four countries—Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan—and spokespersons on both sides saw revision of the ABM Treaty as necessary. The START agreements of 1992 shed new light on older concessions. As the chief U.S. architect of the original ABM Treaty, henry kissinger now joined others in declaring it obsolete in the new era of disarmament. As a gesture of good faith, the Soviets demolished their controversial Krasnoyarsk radar system; a shoe factory now occupies the site.

In the years that followed, the United States and Russia both worked together and strayed from the MAD doctrine. They also turned their attention elsewhere, mainly to the developing world. New nations on the list of nuclear powers included Israel, India, Pakistan, Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, and Syria, none of which had any formal attachment to the ABM Treaty. U.S. and former Soviet strategists went from analyzing BMD research provisions set forth in the ABM Treaty to setting up safeguards against attack from other powers.

In December 2001, however, the United States announced that it would no longer follow the ABM treaty. The formal announcement by President george w. bush set in motion a six-month period for ending the pact. He stated that the ABM Treaty "hinders our government's ability to develop ways to protect our people from future terrorist or rogue state missile attacks."

The United States's withdrawal from the treaty was motivated by the desire to build and deploy a long-range missile defense system that would protect the nation from attacks by rogue nations such as North Korea. The deployment of the missile shield system was set for 2004. The withdrawal came after months of failed negotiations with Russia to jointly abandon the ABM treaty and to craft a new pact based on the current world situation. Russian president Vladimir Putin expressed regret at the decision but did not signal a move to build a competing system.

further readings

American-Soviet Treaty on the Limitation of Anti-Ballistic Missile Systems. May 26, 1972. Moscow.

Assembly of Western European Union. 1993. Anti-Missile Defence for Europe, Symposium, Rome, April 20–21.

Blackwill, Robert D., and Albert Carnesale, eds. 1993. New Nuclear Nations. New York: Council on Foreign Relations.

Durch, William J. 1988. The ABM Treaty and Western Security. Cambridge, Mass.: Ballinger.

——. 1987. The Future of the ABM Treaty. London: International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Greenville, J.A.S., and Bernard Wasserstein. 1987. The Major International Treaties Since 1945. London: Methuen.

Joint Chiefs of Staff. 1994. Doctrine for Joint Theater Missile Defense. Joint pub. no. 3-01.5, March 30.

Kartchner, Kerry M. 1992. Negotiating START. New Brunswick, N.J., and London: Transaction.

Mazarr, Michael J., and Alexander T. Lennon, eds., 1994. Toward a Nuclear Peace. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Perez-Rivas, Manuel. December 14, 2001. "U.S. Quits ABM Treaty." Inside Politics. Available online at <> (accessed May 30, 2003).

Voas, Jeanette. 1990. Soviet Attitudes towards Ballistic Missile Defence and the ABM Treaty. London: International Institute for Strategic Studies.


Arms Control and Disarmament; Bush, George Herbert Walker; International Law.

Antiballistic Missile Treaty

views updated May 11 2018

Antiballistic Missile Treaty


The Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty was signed by the United States and the Soviet Union (U.S.S.R.) in 1972. The treaty was one of two treaties produced by the first series of Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT I) between the two countries; the other was an interim agreement limiting offensive nuclear weapons. The ABM treaty strictly limited the deploymentby both sidesof interceptor missiles, missile launchers, radars, and other devices designed to destroy ballistic missiles or their components in flight. In the original version, each nation was permitted to retain a limited number of ABM radars and no more than 100 ABM interceptor missiles at each of two circular sites 186 miles (300 km) in diameter, one centered on the nation's capital and the other on a cluster of ballistic-missile launch sites. A 1974 amendment reduced the number of permitted ABM sites to one per side and further bound both countries to not deploy ABM systems outside their own territory (e.g., at sea or on the territory of allies). In 1975, the U.S. dismantled its sole ABM system, SAFEGUARD; the U.S.S.R. (and, later, the Russian Federation) retained a single ABM system centered on Moscow. In 1997, further minor revisions were agreed upon, but never ratified by the U.S. The U.S. withdrew from the ABM treaty in July, 2002, and it is no longer binding on any country.

In the U.S., critics urged withdrawal from the ABM treaty soon after it was signed. They argued that it was ridiculous to prevent nuclear war by limiting defense against the primary means for delivering nuclear weapons to their targets. The Reagan administration, for example (19801988) sought to deploy an ambitious missile-defense system ("Star Wars") that would have required abrogation of the ABM treaty. However, supporters of the ABM treaty defended it successfully throughout the 1980s and 1990s based primarily upon the concepts of mutual deterrence, mutual destruction, and first-strike capability.

Since the 1950s, the U.S. and the Soviet Union (U.S.S.R.) possessed enough nuclear warheads mounted on ballistic missiles (and additional thousands on other delivery systems, such as bombers) to destroy each other many times over. Aggression by each side was, in theory, deterred by fear of the other side's weapons; if either side attacked, both attacker and attacked would be destroyed.

This policyoften termed Mutually Assured Destructionwas unstable to the extent that a "first strike" by one side was able (or was perceived as being able) to destroy the other side's missiles in their silos, eliminating most of that country's ability to retaliate. If such a strike were successful, the country to strike first might prevail. Building defenses against ballistic missiles, most arms-control experts assumed, would make this situation even more unstable for several reasons. First, it is impossible to build a system of antiballistic-missile weapons that can reliably protect most of the civilian population of any nation from a determined nuclear attack. (2) A partially effective shield, however, might serve to protect a nuclear aggressor from the effects of a weak counterattack. (3) Possession of such a partial defensive system would, therefore, make a first strike more attractive to the nation possessing it. (4) Finally, if one side built such a partial system, the other, knowing that a first strike had become more attractive to side possessing the partial ABM system, would have even more incentive to strike first itself (against the enemy's ABM system as well as its offensive nuclear weapons), and place itself on hair-trigger alert against attack, making accidental nuclear war more likely. The ABM treaty was designed, signed, and ratified by the U.S. and U.S.S.R. in order to prevent destabilization of this type.

The Reagan administration was prevented from developing a Star Wars system by domestic political resistance centered on the ABM treaty and on skepticism about the technical feasibility of the Stars Wars concept itself. However, the project has been funded by all succeeding administrations, and has now been fully revived under President George W. Bush. In December 2001, the United States gave six months' notice of its intent to withdraw from the ABM treaty, as provided for by the terms of the treaty itself. The U.S. officially withdrew from the treaty in July, 2002. A few days later, work began on a U.S. missile shield, with ground-breaking ceremonies at Fort Greeley, Alaska for a test-bed ABM system consisting of six interceptor missiles.

China, which at present has only about 20 intercontinental-range, land-based ballistic missiles, has stated that it is able to build offensive systems capable of overwhelming any ABM system deployed by the United States.



Alves, Péricles Gasparini. Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space. New York: United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research. 1991.


Stoullig, Jean-Michel. "ABM Treaty Ends, U.S. Open to Experiment on Missile Defense." Agence France-Presse (in June 13, 2002. <> (December 9, 2002).

"Treaty Between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Limitation of Anti-Ballistic Missile Systems, 944 U.N.T.S. 13." Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. 2002. <> (December 9, 2002).


Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, United States
Ballistic Missiles

Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty

views updated Jun 27 2018


The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (usually referred to as "the ABM Treaty") was signed by U.S. president Richard Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in Moscow on May 26, 1972. It entered into force on October 3, 1972. Under its terms, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to limit sharply both development and deployment of ballistic missile defenses in order to constrain the arms race in strategic nuclear weapons and to enhance the stability of the strategic balance. The ABM Treaty was the principal achievement of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT), which also produced an Interim Agreement limiting strategic offensive missiles, pending negotiation of a more comprehensive treaty limiting such weapons. The ABM Treaty was of indefinite duration, although it could be amended by mutual agreement and either party could withdraw at any time on six months' notice.

The ABM Treaty was the centerpiece of the Nixon-Brezhnev Moscow summit of 1972, and the SALT negotiation was seen as the icebreaker for a broader political détente, as well as a stabilizing element in strategic arms control. Strategic arms control and the ABM Treaty enjoyed wide support for most of the next two decades. This was true despite the prolonged and ultimately inconclusive efforts to reach agreement on a SALT II treaty on offensive arms.

By the time Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, American concerns over the strategic balance had risen. In 1983 President Reagan announced a Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) to develop strategic antiballistic missile defense systems. Deployment, and even testing and development, of such a system would have required radical revision or abrogation of the ABM Treaty. In 1985 the Reagan administration announced a unilateral revised interpretation of the ABM Treaty loosening restrictions on testing new ABM technologies. This revised "broad interpretation" of the ABM Treaty was highly controversial and was never applied to actual testing; in 1994 it was officially repudiated by the Clinton administration. The SDI program greatly increased expenditures on U.S. ballistic missile defense research and development, but it did not lead to a deployable system.

In the 1990s and afterward, following the end of the Cold War and agreed reductions in U.S. and Soviet strategic offensive arms, the United States renewed its pursuit of ballistic missile defense. On December 15, 2001, President George W. Bush officially gave notice that the United States was withdrawing from the ABM Treaty in six months. Discussions had been held with the Russians on possible amendments to the treaty, but the United States decided that it wished an open slate for development and deployment decisions and opted to withdraw.

The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty thus had a thirty-year life. The ABM Treaty alone had been unable to restrain a buildup in strategic offensive arms in the 1970s and 1980s, and it was less needed in the postCold War world, although many in the United States (and the Western allies, Russia, and China) had urged its retention. In any event, the ABM Treaty did contribute to greater certainty of mutual nuclear deterrence for nearly two decades of the Cold War, and even the fact of its successful negotiation had borne witness to the ability of the nuclear superpowers, even as adversaries, to agree on such a measure to reduce the dangers of the nuclear confrontation.

See also: arms control; cold war; strategic arms limitation treaties; strategic defense initiative; united states, relations with


Garthoff, Raymond L. (1994). Détente and Confrontation: American-Soviet Relations from Nixon to Reagan, rev. edition. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution.

Newhouse, John. (1973). Cold Dawn: The Story of SALT. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Smith, Gerard. (1980). Double Talk: The Story of SALT I. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Raymond L. Garthoff

Antiballistic Missile Treaty

views updated May 14 2018


ANTIBALLISTIC MISSILE TREATY. SeeStrategic Arms Limitation Talks .

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